Writing Science

Writing Science March 26, 2012

By Adam Ruben:

I’m still fairly new at this science thing. I’m less than 4 years beyond the dark days of grad school and the adviser who wouldn’t tolerate “lone.” So forgive my naïveté when I ask: Why the hell not?

Why can’t we write like other people write? Why can’t we tell our science in interesting, dynamic stories? Why must we write dryly? (Or, to rephrase that last sentence in the passive voice, as seems to be the scientific fashion, why must dryness be written by us?)

I once taught two different college science writing classes in back-to-back semesters. The first was mainstream science writing; the students had fun finding interesting research projects and writing about them. One student visited a lab where scientists who were building a new submarine steering mechanism let her practice steering a model sub around a little tank. Another subjected himself to an fMRI and wrote about the experience.

But the second semester was science writing for scientists, in which they learned how to write scientific journal articles — and it was a lot less fun. “Keep it interesting!” I told my students during the first semester. To my second-semester students, I said, “Well, you’re not really supposed to keep it interesting.”

We’re taught that scientific journal articles are just plain different from all other writing. They’re not written in English per se; they’re written in a minimalist English intended merely to convey numbers and graphs. As such, they have their own rules. For example:

I give just two of his twelve good examples:

2. Using the first person in your writing humanizes your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid using the first person in your writing. Science succeeds in spite of human beings, not because of us, so you want to make it look like your results magically discovered themselves….

4. The more references you include, the more scholarly your reader will assume you are. Thus, if you write a sentence like, “Much work has been done in this field,” you should plan to spend the next 9 hours tracking down papers so that your article ultimately reads, “Much work has been done in this field1,3,6-27,29-50,58,61,62-65,78-315,952-Avogadro’s Number.” If you ever write a review article, EndNote might explode.


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